MUHAMMAD HUSAIN AZAD – A Poet Extraordinaire

by Nadia Cheema

Muhammad Husain Azad (1830-1910) is considered one of the best Urdu poets. His best known work is Aab-e-Hayat. He spent almost his entire life and savings on building up a personal collection that boasted thousands of rare volumes and manuscripts. He opened his library to the general public.

Azad was one of the forefathers of the new Urdu movement, a pioneer of the new spirit that was dawning on Urdu Literature. Mohammad Husain Azad ranks very high, he is the greatest of the modern poets, a most distinguished writer of racy, piquant, delightful prose, a critic of considerable merit, a great educationalist, a clever journalist, a remarkable and inimitable stylist and a great authority on modern Persian. His services to the Urdu language are immense and valuable. To him Urdu literature owes the foundation of the new kind of poetry.

After the death of his father in Delhi during the Indian Mutiny, Azad came to Lahore, where he obtained a post in the education division. He was in charge of producing school textbooks in Urdu, which the British were developing for official use in the Punjab. Azad eventually went on to become Professor of Arabic and Persian at Government College in Lahore.

He was, in short, a man of letters in the fullest sense of the expression.

Azad was essentially a poet and had really a poetic temperament. It flashes out in prose and lends to it the charm and dignity of the Urdu poetic language. Being the son of a dear friend of Zauq, the spirit of poetry was fostered in him by his constant association with that master poet and other great poets of the time. He attended with his Ustad (teacher), Zauq, the poetic contests held in Delhi and benefited immensely from the discussions as to the merits and demerits of compositions. He was passionately attached to his poetic preceptor and his influence, allied to his own poetic temperament, moulded Azad’s career as a poet.

Azad emphasised that Urdu poetry must walk out in the sun and free it from the cramping influence of erotic themes and rosy boudoirs. He directed poets to tap other sources, to have recourse to Bhasha for simplicity, naturalness and widening of scope. He led the way by writing many small masnavis (poems) on the new subjects and various poems in the new style.

Azad wrote ghazals (love couplets) and qasidas (religious poetry). The latter are conventional and written according to the canons of such compositions. The ghazals are, however, sprightly and have force and are Sufistic in character. The qasidas are extravagantly written in the approved style of old Urdu poets. These compositions relate to an earlier stage in the development of Azad’s art.

The work for which he is best remembered is the Ab-e-Hayat (Water of Life). This is a history of the classical Urdu poets, notable for its lively evocation of a bygone world through its many anecdotes. It has become the most often reprinted and most widely read Urdu book of the past century. Azad also travelled to Iran and wrote about the Persian language and literature, the subject of his life-long love.

He will be remembered as a pioneer of the new movement that took place in Urdu literature in the latter half of the 19th century.

Ab-e-Hayat

“In praising a garden we will sometimes scar [with jealousy] the heart of the green garden of the skies and the garden of the stars; sometimes we will call it a Faraway Paradise or a Paradise on Earth. In fact, we’ll blacken many pages praising, in all different styles, its each and every flower and leaf. But the swaying of its greenery, the radiance of its flowers, its sweet smells, the rippling of flowing water, its well-pruned trees, the blooming of the flowerbeds, the scent of the air, the call of the parrot, the cry of the papiya, the voice of the koyal that affects the human heart with spiritual joy, we don’t describe these things in a way that portrays them before the reader’s eyes. If it’s a battlefield, then we hurl the regions of earth up and destroy them in the heavens, and cause rivers of blood to flow from one country into another. But the emotional effect that, in itself, causes hearts to see the heroism of a hero and then feel inspired with love of country and self-sacrificial devotion to a comrade—that is not there.”

The author is a regular contributor to LAFZ Magazine.  Article first appeared in Issue 7 of LAFZ Magazine